Union Rags, the hard-luck colt who finished a troubled seventh in the Kentucky Derby (G1), avenged the defeat in grand fashion on Saturday in the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes (G1).
The Belmont lost some of its luster on Friday with the announcement that Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (G1) Stakes winner I’ll Have Another had been retired due to an injured tendon in his left front leg. Despite I’ll Have Another’s absence, a crowd of 85,811 turned out Saturday, the sixth-largest in Belmont Park history, to witness a thrilling stretch duel that delivered plenty of excitement.
Paynter assumed command at the break of the 1 ½-mile marathon. He led the field through pedestrian fractions of 23.72, 49.23, 1:14.72, and 1:38.85 for the mile, while Union Rags rated comfortably along the inside in fifth position early.
With Paynter unchallenged around the turn and into the stretch, it appeared that jockey Mike Smith and trainer Bob Baffert were about to gain retribution for their narrow losses with favored Bodemeister in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. But Velazquez and Union Rags had other plans.
With no real opening to guide Union Rags outside other runners around the far turn, Velazquez boldly sent the long-striding colt up the rail and after Paynter. Under strong encouragement from Velazquez, Union Rags lengthened his enormous stride and utilized every inch of the 1 ½ miles to collar the pacesetter in deep stretch and post a neck victory over Paynter in 2:30.42. It was a brilliant performance from Union Rags and a polished ride from Velazquez.
“I waited for a hole to open up and I got lucky,” said Velazquez, who won the 2007 Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches. “The horse did it all.
“The main concern with him was that I wanted to break well out of there and get a good position,” he added. “I just wanted him to get in a good rhythm, you know, going forward, I didn’t want to get him stopped. I just wanted to get in a good rhythm that he felt comfortable where he was. He did everything really well behind the horses.”
Baffert and Smith finished second once again with a Zayat Stables colorbearer.
“It looked like we had it,” said Baffert. “It looked like it was ours. I really felt like I was going to win the Belmont. It was snatched away again.”
Atigun, ridden by Julien Leparoux, closed for third, with Dullahan, the Belmont Stakes favorite, a non-threatening seventh.
“Paynter ran a big race, they all ran big. Union Rags ran big; we just didn’t have a finishing kick,” said Dale Romans, trainer of the beaten favorite. “I think it puts Union Rags in the picture for an Eclipse Award. There’s a lot of year left, and with I’ll Have Another out, it’s definitely in his own hands.”
Union Rags, who was both sold as a yearling and later bought back by owner Phyllis Wyeth, won the first three races of his career, including the Grade 2 Three Chimneys Saratoga Special and Belmont’s Grade 1 Champagne. After a wide-trip second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to Hansen, the eventual champion 2-Year-Old Male, Union Rags began his 3-year-old campaign as one of the favorites for the Derby. Winner of the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, and third in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, he was sent off as the 5-1 second choice in the Kentucky Derby but was beaten 7 ½ lengths after a nightmare trip.
“We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential,” said Matz, who trained 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. “When we trained him, we gave him four races as a 2-year-old and gave him a rest and had a good plan. He never missed a beat. His first race [this year] couldn’t have been any easier. He had trouble in his second race and his third race. I do really think that this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, is one of the best 3-year-olds in this crop. Whether he could have done something against I’ll Have Another, I don’t know, but it sure would have been fun to see.”
Union Rags, who received his early training in Ocala/Marion County from Eddie Woods, returned $7.50 for a $2 win bet and earned $600,000 for the victory, lifting his earnings to $1,798,800 for Wyeth.
“It was my dream and he made it come true,” said Wyeth, who has been confined to a wheelchair as the result of a 1962 car accident. “Nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny. That was unbelievable. He just said, ‘Move over, I’m coming.’ He believed in the horse, and Michael got him there.”
As for Matz, the Belmont Stakes offered redemption.
“I think he showed a lot of gameness today,” Matz said. ” Believe me, it’s sure a lot nicer walking back after the races than it was in the Kentucky Derby, I’ll tell you that.”
In addition to the attendance figures, on-track handle was also the third largest ever at Belmont Park, behind only the $14,742,521 wagered on Breeders’ Cup Day 2005 and the 2004 Belmont Stakes Day handle. It easily eclipsed the previous non-Triple Crown Day record of $10,581,093 set in 2001 by 30.2 percent and was up 36.4 percent over $10,098,573 in 2011.
Union Rags/NYRA Photo